An audience hears what it sees, especially in the ballet of solo ringing, where the performer’s body is an integral part of the instrument. One unique and beautiful aspect of handbells is that the audience can see the music moving up and down and flowing along the bell table. All movement should be organic, arising out of the music, neither squelched nor imposed for its own sake. The demands of the music and resulting movement influence choices about techniques and organizing bells. For example, you wouldn’t knowingly plan choreography that always resulted in a bell coming in late, or program a technique that detracted from the overall performance.

I can usually tell whether a handbell soloist has handbell quartet (or dance) experience by how she moves her feet – or doesn’t. In a handbell choir, ringers have limited table space, so they plant their feet and stay put. In a quartet, a ringer may cover a range of an octave or more, overlapping with bells assigned to other ringers. That means everyone must move along the table with the music. Quartet ringers quickly learn that “standing still = collision.” It’s valuable experience for handbell soloists, who resemble a quartet ringer more than a bell choir ringer. I’ve heard of teachers who consider movement such an important solo/ensemble ringing skill that they teach it first.

In general, it’s better to move to the bell you’re about to play, not reach out to the side to ring it. You have more control with your shoulder behind the ringing stroke, and are less likely to strain something picking up heavier bells. You also look less like you’re channeling your inner squid. I experiment with and plan my footwork, even wearing ballet slippers to perform.

Here’s an exercise to help you get moving. Stand at one end of the solo table, facing the bells. Walk to the other end of the table while you continue facing the bells, then walk back to where you started. You may want to draw a pair of mallets or your fingertips lightly along the edge of the table. The goal is to move smoothly while always having bells within reach. Experiment with stepping to the side, or crosswise in front, or in back. Notice which foot leads more naturally, and what footwork causes jerky motions in your upper body. The first few times you do this exercise, you may be surprised at how hard it is. It will improve with practice. Marimbists do this exercise to warm up, drawing their mallets along the bars. It may help you in spots in your bell solos where you tend to ring late; that can often be solved by stepping sooner, further, or more smoothly in the direction of the bell.

A good stance for ringing is with feet hip width apart, one foot ahead of the other, with knees and elbows slightly bent. This allows you to put more weight behind notes that should be louder (for example, leaning into a tenuto or repeated note), while sinking back into softer notes. It also allows follow-through of the ringing stroke, so the audience hears the resonance of the casting more than the percussiveness of the clapper. Because of the general “fore and aft” stance, I find it more comfortable to step slightly forward or back when moving sideways. This is also how you get out of your own way if, for example, you need to pick up a bell that’s better positioned for the other hand. Step back and to the side, angling your body to the table.

Plan your footwork and bell placement so you can move in only one direction at a time. For example, in one piece I’m working on, I ring bells in the 7 range (high treble) in one section, then start the next section with G5. I carry the last pair of high treble bells with me, letting the note sound, and set them in an empty space near the low treble. Since I don’t use them again in the piece, I leave them there until the end. Contrast that with the alternative of cutting the note value short, or backtracking to put bells in their home position.

In another example, I ring a passage at the low treble end of the table, then place the last note in a “mini-bell-tree” (discussed in Special techniques) on my way back to the center of the table. I positioned the “bell tree stand” to optimize movement up the table, without stopping or rushing. From the audience standpoint, it’s one smooth flow along the table, in time with the music.

In this section of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ the principle of moving in a single direction simplifies this complex passage:


I paired the following bells:

Bb5/C6 – in C6 space – set before this passage
Ab6\D6 – in Ab6 space – set at the junction of measure 3-4 of this passage
Eb6\G6 – in Eb6 space – set before this passage

This allowed me to move smoothly for the first several measures. However, doubling back to pick up Ab5 from its home position was both awkward and hard to remember. I wanted to move right, and Ab5 forced me to jerk left. When I looked back to where I had been (and was going next), reorienting my focus took too long. It was a train wreck waiting to happen.

Instead, I rang Ab5 in my right hand at the beginning of this passage and set it down in the space nominally above E6 F6 (though both those bells had been displaced). By the time I needed to ring Ab5 again, that section of table (ignoring irrelevant bells) looked like this:

Eb6\G6        Ab5     Ab6\D6

Bb5/C6       F6

That made it easy to move from left to right while ringing this sequence:

C6, Bb5, C6, Eb6, G6, Bb5, Ab5, Bb5, D6

If you find what I’m talking about hard to follow, set up the bells as I suggested. Ring the sequence above, ignoring note values. Now move Ab5 left to its home position. Ring the sequence again, and I think you’ll get my point.

When I reached F6, I reversed direction, moving down the table, carrying Bb5/F6 in my left hand and Ab5 in my right. I returned Ab5 home at that time and F6 a little later, during a passage that began with Bb5. The rest, as they say, is history.

I even use this principle with transitions between pieces. I start at one end of the table and move toward the other end resetting bells on the way, without zigzagging back and forth tossing bells here and there. Sometimes you have to make two passes to reset the table, in which case I move along the table once and then back to where I need to be next, either to start the next piece or to sit down. I practice these transitions just like I practice my pieces: this economy of motion communicates calm and competence.

As you become more aware of how footwork affects your overall presentation, you’ll grow more particular about where you perform. If you have a choice between a wood floor and carpet, the wood floor is better. Look for anything that could trip you, like loose carpet or raised molding. Sometimes there’s an electrical or sound system outlet in the floor, usually with a metal cover. Every time you step on it, you’ll hear it and feel it. I place my tables over the outlet, behind it, or so far in front of it that I’m unlikely to step on it. When coordinating with a venue, I specify the amount of space needed for my tables, including space to move around and behind them. There’s no substitute for having enough space for freedom of movement.

The position of a soloist’s feet and legs can be felt and seen in the upper body. Your posture will look different if you’re pointing your foot in front of you, vs. sinking back into your heels, vs. standing in a wide second position (ballet-speak for feet apart and to the sides). This variety can be really beautiful, and much more interesting than watching someone parked in one place waving around bells. It also affects the sound produced, as we’ll explore further in a future article on movement.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,